The Story Behind the Story

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Repairing the System

What’s the story behind the story of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17 year old Laquan McDonald multiple times as the boy was walking away from him, but still claiming he acted in self-defense, a lie several of his fellow officers repeated in their official reports of the killing? And why would police officers lie in official reports, an act that could get them fired? And, finally, is McDonald’s death a tragic error or a symptom of a deeper structural problem in the Chicago Police Department (CPD)?

Jamie Kalven’s four-part essay in The Intercept goes a long way toward answering these questions. Kalven thinks the answers all revolve around the CPD “code of silence”—officers never “rat” on one another. The “code” may sound like an example of admirable loyalty between comrades. “You’ve got my back and I’ve got yours.” But Kalven points out that it plays a more sinister role in the department’s culture. The code of silence is not so much about personal loyalty between comrades as it is an essential cog in a top-down bureaucratic dynamic that forces all police officers to choose between four career profiles: criminal, crime enabler, stooge, or pariah.

Shannon Spalding was young police officer assigned to the housing projects on Chicago’s Southside. She started hearing talk that Sargent Ronald Watts was running a protection racket for drug dealers in the projects. They were required to pay Watts a “tax.” Those who did were left alone; those who didn’t were “busted” and had their drugs confiscated to be sold by Watts’ team. There were even stories of murders of uncooperative drug dealers.

At first Spalding didn’t give much credence to the rumors. She had ridden in a squad car with Watts when she first joined the force, and found him to be a good guy. (This was her “stooge” phase.) But when her partner Danny Echeverria came across more information on Watts’ criminal activities, they decided to report him, and soon found themselves assigned to a joint anti-corruption task force with the FBI.

But just as that investigation was reaching the point where a prosecution against Watts was possible, Spalding and her partner were taken off the case by the head of the Internal Affairs Department, Juan Rivera, the man in charge of investigating “bad” cops. Rivera also let it be known throughout the department that Spalding and Echeverria were working on prosecutions of fellow officers. Suddenly the two young officers became pariahs, not only ostracized socially, but also in physical danger.

Why would the man assigned to stopping police criminal behavior interfere with a promising investigation against an officer believed to be a criminal? Kalven suggests that Watts knew that he was not the only Chicago police officer engaging in illegal activity and that he made clear that, if he was prosecuted, he would bring others down with him. Numerous senior officials were therefore vulnerable to charges of either engaging in criminal activity or enabling others who were by looking the other way. This not only would put a lot of insiders at risk, but also the publicity created by a new wave of police scandals would not be good news for head of the Internal Affairs Division, or the mayor he reported to.

So it made bureaucratic sense for the official whose job is to prevent police crime to act as a crime enabler. Eventually Spalding and Echeverria realized their careers in the police force were effectively over and filed a whistle-blower lawsuit charging top leaders of the CPD with serious retaliatory actions against them. Here’s how things finally played out. Watts was charged with one offense of “theft of government property”, and served a short sentence and paid 5200 dollars in restitution. Upon his release he retired to Las Vegas, presumably with millions of dollars gleaned from his decades of shaking down drug dealers.

Then just before the trial in their lawsuit,, Spalding and Echeverria agreed to a 2 million dollar settlement of their case. This may sound like a partial vindication of their efforts, but Kalven argues that the settlement actually solidified the code. Mayor Rahm Emanuel had once given a speech in which he decried the “code of silence” operating in the CPD. The judge in Spalding and Echeverria’s case had ruled that Emanuel could be questioned under oath about how the code operated. And all the officers who had exonerated Van Dyke in their reports would be also be required to testify under oath. Filing a false report can lose you your job; perjury is a felony. The settlement made it unnecessary for the mayor or the officers to testify. The settlement appears to be not so much a repudiation of the code of silence as an example of the code in action.

But the Spalding and Echeverria’s lawsuit and Kalven’s article do give us a better understanding of what happened in the Laquan McDonald killing. Why did Van Dyke shoot and kill a boy who presented no clear danger to him? While we still do not know all the thoughts in his mind, fear of criminal prosecution does not appear to have been one of them; Van Dyke knew the “code’ would protect him. And why would his colleagues lie to protect him? Whatever role comrade loyalty played, there were more practical reasons for them to corroborate Van Dyke’s version of events. While a false report would violate the rules of their employment, the rules were never enforced in a “code” situation. But telling the truth would have immediate and serious consequences. They would become departmental pariahs in much more danger than either Spalding or Echeverria because they would have had actually violated the code. And, finally, should we view the McDonald killing as a tragic mistake or a symptom of a system out of control? I’ll leave that question for you to answer for yourself.

But there’s one more omnipresent character in this story who we must remember—the victim. Here I mean innocent citizens who have been the been the victims of police conduct the code condones—people like Laquan McDonald and countless other innocent, mostly minority. Chicagoans.

Will this ever end? Probably not until some people who do not wear uniforms take responsibility. Mayor Emanuel certainly is a case in point. He approved the settlement which allowed the cover-up to continue. But let’s not forget the citizens of Chicago who foot the 2 million dollar bill for the settlement. They would appear to qualify both as enablers and stooges. This story will only have a happy ending when the people of Chicago elect a mayor with an explicit mandate to make dramatic changes in how the CPD does business.

Of course,  there is one more question to ask ourselves–Is there any reason to believe that this problem is unique to Chicago?

This linked article not only summarizes Kalven’s argument, but also provides links to Kalven’s complete text.

update 1/1/17   This follow-up article by Jaime Kalven suggests that CPD is living up  to our worst fears.

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